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Q & A with George Cates

Executive Director of the Overton Park Conservancy

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Often referred to as the "crown jewel" of Midtown, Overton Park is more than just a park. The hundred-plus-year-old public space is home to the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis College of Art, the Levitt Shell, and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Maintaining such a large park is taxing on an overburdened city parks department. So last year, a group of concerned citizens came forth to establish the nonprofit Overton Park Conservancy, tasked with protecting and preserving the historic space.

The Memphis City Council approved the conservancy and its planned enhancements to the park in December. Now, George Cates, the current executive director, discusses how the new group will help bring the crown jewel back to its shining state. — Hannah Sayle

Why take on preserving Overton Park?

I like to bicycle there and walk in the Old Forest. It was in decrepit condition, and anybody could see that it suffered from a lack of capital investment. The city would have liked to do better, but they don't have the money.

What is the role of a conservancy?

Conservancies provide a vehicle for people to give money. Folks are not going to donate to a city. The conservancies provide the 501(c)(3) status.

Last summer, you put out a survey for public feedback.

We didn't want to assume we had all the answers. As I recall, we had about 2,000 respondents, and they gave us all sorts of feedback that was incorporated into the final document we submitted to the city council around November.

What are some of the key areas of improvement you have identified?

First is the overflow parking on the greensward. The zoo is indispensable to the life and health of the park, but part of their growth has meant they don't have a place to park cars. So here you have this beautiful [George] Kessler-designed park, and the core of the park is a parking lot.

What is the solution?

The solution is to create a parking garage for 500 cars, and the place to put that garage is in the present zoo service area. It will cost around $5.5 million, and the funding is going to have to come, at least in some part, from the city. If we can figure out how to fund it and get it built, the zoo is committed to never put another car on the greensward.

Are there any smaller projects we might see sooner?

The conservancy is already staffing up to operate the park — mowing the grass, picking up the grounds, those types of things. We'll have several small construction projects: restrooms, playground improvements, signage. And we'll also reintroduce educational programs and hold membership drives to raise money for future capital needs.

How much will the planned improvements cost?

The budget is $5.8 million as of today, and that's all-inclusive: operations, programs, capital spending, you name it. Of that $5.8 million, around $2 million is for capital projects.

Do you foresee any snags in what has been a fairly seamless process?

There's been so little dissent. Overwhelmingly, going to the city council and going to the mayor, this project has been brotherhood and apple pie. We got unanimous approval at the parks committee of the city council and then at the meeting of the full city council. I don't think that happens a lot. It's a testament to the importance of Overton Park.

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